Friday, June 01, 2018

tipping the canoe -- and the waiter

Yup. I am about to poke the bear.

From past experience, discussing tipping is the second easiest way to generate comments in these parts. (I will let you guess the first.) For some reason, people's beliefs about tipping are about as a concrete as a Calvinist's certainty of how salvation works.

What has sent me down this quixotic path of knight errantry was a little slip of yellow paper tucked at the back of our table in a hipster-wannabe restaurant in Portland. My family had stopped there last Friday to have lunch before we attended my aunt's memorial service.

My niece, a Seattle foodie, quickly took the measure of the place. It felt as if it had once been a popular neighborhood breakfast spot, but now wanted desperately to be a hipster magnet in its old age. Similar to those guys who are effectively bald but like wearing their fringe in a braided ponytail.

But it was not the bizarre food combinations on the menu or the self-conscious tackiness of the decor that caught my attention. It was that yellow piece of paper.

Admittedly, I got sucked in by the headline: "Gigi's is Tipless ." I will confess that I seriously mistook the last word. But I suspect the vowel movement was intentional.

I read on.

"We have chosen to become a tipless restaurant to ensure all staff, both front of house and kitchen staff, are paid a living wage, covered by health and dental insurance and a part of  our profit incentive plan."

After all, this is Portland, and "living wage" is one of those code words to ensure the customer knows she is sitting in the lap of compassionate progressivism. (I particularly liked the "front of house" insertion -- to telegraph that the person waiting on your table is actually an actor playing the part of a waiter.)

Having advertised their generosity to their staff and their desire to go tipless, I anticipated the owners would then announce they had folded what would normally be a tip into the prices on the menu, 
instead of customers having to dig for tips. That would be a win-win for everyone.

But, I was wrong. Probably because the answer I just posited would have been a market-driven libertarian solution. And this is Portland. Instead, the owners put the dark underbelly of progressivism in full view.

Instead of leaving the choice of a tip in the hands of their customers, the owners decided that a tax would be a far simpler solution. "A 20% surcharge will be added to each ticket (in lieu of gratuity), and used entirely for staff benefit."

"For staff benefit?" I assume that means to solely pay for those lauded benefits the owners are so generously providing to their help.

None of that bothers me. After all, customers pay for every single penny in pay and benefits that businesses provide to their employees -- assuming that the business does not have a dollar tree growing in the break room.

So why all the hairshirt business of going tipless? Anyone with a nodding acquaintance of economics knows how the process works.

Or do they? I suspect the reason the restaurant went from voluntary tipping to imposing a tax is that not enough people were tipping to help the staff maintain a "living wage."

Of course, if customers are unhappy with the service charge, they can choose to eat elsewhere. As will my family in the future. Not because of the tipping policy, but because of the food.

And that brings us to Mexico where tipping continues to be a topic of discussion amongst tourists and expatriates.

The waiters in the restaurants in our little fishing villages are in the same position as waiters in most small American restaurants. Their wage is minimal. They count on tips to scrape enough pesos together to make a "living wage."

That is why I am a little confounded at diners who seem to develop very odd tipping behavior while they are in Mexico.

The range of tipping is astounding -- from nothing to the customary 20% in northern restaurants. Let me share some anecdotes.

Several years ago, I was dining at my then-regular restaurant (La Rana -- The Frog) with a long-term tourist. During dinner he mentioned how inexpensive it was to eat in restaurants in Mexico. "I can afford to eat out for about two-thirds of my meals."

When the bill arrived, I noticed that he had left about the equivalent of a 5% tip. Out of curiosity (because it was really none of my business), I asked him if he had miscalculated.

"Oh, that. No. I only leave 5% at restaurants here. I figure the meals are so inexpensive and that living costs are so low here, that half my normal tip is sufficient."

I started to explain how percentages work in absolute terms, but he was not interested. He thought he was leaving enough.

A second story.

A woman who grew up in England had a discussion here with me about tipping. She is opposed to it. Her feeling is that if she leaves a tip, she is encouraging owners to pay sub-standard wages. (She is not an aberration. I talked with cruise staff on a ship that was stationed out of England. They said the English simply do not tip.)

The culture we tuck in our suitcases when we visit or move to Mexico has a big factor on our tipping practises. For example, some long-term visitors are on a restricted budget. They will splurge to eat out, but then save by cutting back on the tip.

Not everyone, of course. But enough to create a credible stereotype. Stereotypes that waiters are willing to share.

I am a realist when it comes to tipping. Especially, when it comes to tipping at places I often frequent.

My rule in Mexico is that I will leave a tip of 20 pesos for any restaurant bill up to 100 pesos. If the bill is above $100, I leave 20%. Here is why.

I have no delusions about buying friendship with the tips I give waiters. What I do buy is good service in the future. And a bit of gratitude that gives me some very good sources for conversations and blog material.

I refuse to join the debate about what the proper percentage of a tip is. That is an argument for bureaucrat-minded. People should allow their moral compass to determine how much they should leave on the table at the end of a meal.

But part of that moral compass should always incorporate the concept that the waiter who took your order and brought your food to your table, and the cook who prepared it, are trying to make a living in this world. And that can often be very difficult in Mexico.

It is not only God who enjoys a joyful giver.

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